Feds walk out on Denver school talks

Education department seeks suit over the way district teaches students who don't speak English

The U.S. Department of Education quit negotiating Tuesday and now wants to sue Denver Public Schools over how it teaches more than 13,000 students who speak little or no English.

Federal officials want DPS to make students completely literate in English before moving them to mainstream classes. The district now often moves students into mainstream classes when they can speak English fairly well, but not necessarily read and write proficiently.

The education department also wants the district to improve how it determines who enters and leaves the program, require students to achieve specific test scores before leaving bilingual classes, bolster monitoring of instruction and provide better bilingual books, materials and teachers.

The education department asked the Department of Justice to file a lawsuit to force the district to meet its demands. Justice spokesman Lee Douglass said agency lawyers will consider the request.

Tuesday’s decision follows a two-year investigation into the bilingual program by the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights. That probe, the department announced in July, found the district discriminated against limited-English and immigrant minority students by denying them services necessary for a good education.

Superintendent Irv Moskowitz said he was frustrated talking to the education department, which is ”adhering to a very rigid view of how programs for these students should be run.”

Moskowitz said he’s glad now to aim his persuasive powers at the justice department, which ”we assume to be more open-minded.”

DPS receives more than $ 30 million in federal money for various programs. The dispute could jeopardize that aid, but the education department does not intend to cut off the money, said Rodger Murphey, an agency spokesman.

Tuesday’s action will have no effect on classrooms.

The district will continue current practices that are under federal-court supervision. As part of its desegregation plan, DPS was forced in 1984 by Judge Richard Matsch to offer special instruction to students whose primary language was not English or who lived in a home where English was not dominant. Matsch acted after a lawsuit filed by the Congress of Hispanic Educators.

Almost 90 percent of DPS’ bilingual students speak Spanish. Most learn subject content in Spanish and, to varying degrees, also in English. Twenty percent of the district’s students speak limited English. In recent years, tests show that less than half those students have improved their English skills.

The district in August offered the education department a new plan for students to learn English. In a series of meetings since, DPS has offered revisions and compromises, which federal officials rejected as vague and inadequate.

DPS wants to continue emphasizing English and not making students truly proficient in two languages. Toward that end, the district wants to move most students into mainstream classes within three years. Those not ready will continue to receive help in their native tongue.

District administrators believe that once students can speak English they should move into mainstream classes, where they will learn to read and write it more quickly.

Part of the dispute centers on when students can leave the bilingual program.

Besides proficiency in spoken English, the district wants to consider class performance, teacher evaluation, parents’ wishes, and scores on standardized tests when moving a child to English-only classes.

The district contends federal officials want students to advance only after they score higher than the bottom third in national achievement tests, regardless of profiency in spoken English.

”The approach being taken by the Office for Civil Rights would yield a prescriptive, rigid, lock-step evaluation of student needs,” Moskowitz said.

Murphey said his department is willing to be more flexible than DPS believes but argues that students who score below the 30th percentile need more evaluation.

Disputes with the education department are common. In the past five years 25 Colorado school districts have faced similar complaints from the education department. All but two have been resolved, federal officials (said. cq)

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